Winter hit Sonobeno village like it never did before. One day, it had been completely sunny. Then, when the villagers awoke, the village looked as if it was drenched in a blizzard. As such, the use of fireplaces resumed and the men found themselves distributing logs and matches from door to door.
Joe unconsciously let out a grunt as he placed the basket of charcoal on his back. He was never the fit guy of Sonobeno village, but he was strong enough to carry a basket worth of the mineral.
The boy of the name jumped, startled by the sudden audience. Turning to his left, he locked his auburn eyes with black.
“Ryoko!” he smiled, trudging over to where she stood, “I’d give you a hug, but you know, with this on my back and all…”
“What the hell, don’t feel bad!” Ryoko giggled. Joe noticed how the bangs of her long, black hair almost bounced in the cold wind. Although her raven locks contrasted the peach colour of her kimono and haori, it suited her. “Are you heading to the village square to give out charcoal? You know you don’t have to.”
“Well, I want everyone to eat as much as they can and want on New Years!” Joe proudly stated, pointing his index to his chest. He looked back to the short girl, confused by the smug smirk on her face. “Wait wha-?”
“Or do you just wanna see Sara?”
Dead silence filled the snowy surroundings, so much so that one could hear the soft rustling of the leaves. Suddenly, Joe shrieked and jerked his body in shock, dropping a few bits of charcoal from his basket.
“Ryoko! What do you mean! Are you crazy?!” he shouted, covering his pink face from the girl. Since when did he get so embarrassed? “You know I still like you-” he was cut off by a boisterous laugh.
“And I know that we’ve already moved on from each other!” Ryoko playfully giggled, doubling over. “Our dating relationship was in the past, I know that you like Sara!”
“God damnit, please stop.”
In the blink of an eye, Ryoko straightened herself and stared at Joe with a fierce and serious look. The boy in her field of vision was confused by the sudden silence and peeked through two fingers of his hands.
“So when are you gonna confess?”
“Damnit Ryoko!” the boy yelped once again, running off to the village square. Although he was growing far from the girl, he could still faintly hear her laughs.
“You have all the time in the world!” He makes out Ryoko’s words, “Just take your time, lover boy!”
“That’s right,” he smiles to himself. “I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Joe was so lost in his mind, that he didn’t notice someone in front of him until he found himself toppled over them. It took time for his mind to register what had happened, but when it did, his eyes widened in shock and embarrassment.
Here he was, pinning the Sara Chidouin on the ground, legs intertwined with hers. Her beautiful violet eyes reciprocated the shock and embarrassment that was clearly evident in his own. The loose ponytail, held by a pink ribbon mixed with the snow and her pink kimono was all ruffled up.
After a few moments of silence, Joe finally found use of his words.
“Hey Joe,” the girl of the question muttered under her breath, cupping her rosy cheeks. “H-hey, could you get off me? It would be kinda weird if someone saw us in this position. Let alone Ryoko…”
Joe laughed and forced his playful facade to overtake his own embarrassment. “Who knew the Samurai Woman could get so flustered?”
“Joe,” Sara stated firmly. He could see her cheeks growing even more red by the second; how cute. He almost wanted to peck them with his lips- “Please, I don’t have my haori. I’m cold.”
Taking a quick glance at her, he noticed that she spoke the truth. Guilt washed over him and he immediately rose the girl to her feet.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry!” Joe apologized, going on his knees. “Here, take mine and I’ll walk you home.”
“Oh no, you don’t have to-”
Sara was cut off when calloused hands wrapped a green and black checkered haori over her. She unmistakably flushed like never before.
“I was gonna go to the town square to sell charcoal,” the boy mumbled, rubbing the back of his head. He then gestured to the basket of charcoal that had been completely ruined after their fall. “But I guess I’ll just go get some more after I drop you off.”
The escort back to Sara’s home was rather quiet, which was pretty unusual for the two of them. Usually, the two would always have something to talk about. Perhaps this blanket of silence was born due to their awkward encounter earlier.
Deciding to engage with her before she got home, he asked the most stupid question that he could ever ask at this time.
“So… have they found your pops?”
Joe immediately slapped himself and furrowed his eyebrows in empathy. He thought that the girl would have stopped dead in her tracks and break down, but… not today. There was a reason why she was called Samurai Woman; she was strong.
“I’m sorry, I-”
“No, no it’s alright,” Sara sighed, a small smile gracing her features. “But to answer your question: no. Not yet at least. Before he passed, my grandpa suggested that it was the work of man-eating demons.”
“Yeah. Apparently they only prowl the land when it’s dark.” she frowned. “Grandpa said that dad was probably doing a late night stroll and got attacked. But it’s only an old folk’s tale in the village, right?”
The brunette could sense the fear in the air, and when he took a side glance at her face, her eyes confirmed it.
She was afraid.
“Hey Sara,” Joe whispered. At the mention of her name, the girl faced her companion. She felt something gently grab at her right hand, and found her pinky finger locked with his own. “I won’t let you get hurt, don’t you worry! That’s a promise!
At a complete loss for words, the usually stoic girl felt a few tears stream down her face. Embracing him with a large hug, she felt comfort and warmth while pressed against him. As she felt his arms around her body, she wondered when she would confess to him her true feelings. He did indeed say that he still liked Ryoko. Eh, she would confess a different time. After all, they had they had the time of the world.
“Joe,” she cried against his chest. “Thank you!”
The walk to her home ended in silence, just as it had in the beginning. He escorted her to Mrs.Chidouin who had given him a basket in compensation for his own ruined one.
Just as he said earlier, Joe travelled out of the village to gather some more charcoal. However, as soon as he came to his senses, he realized that night had fallen.
Soon enough, he pathetically found himself at the door step of his friend, Ranmaru Kageyama. Joe opened his mouth to explain, but the other boy already beat him to the words.
“Don’t say it, you dropped off Sara to her house and you went to go for charcoal until it was night.” Ranmaru rolled his eyes. He then let out a laugh. “It’s okay, you know I’ll always let you crash here. Come in.”
Joe’s mouth was left agape in small shock. How many times has he stayed over here again? Wasn’t this his fifth time? It doesn’t matter. At least he found a place to stay the night.
He assisted his friend in laying the extra futon, and he got in bed.
“So, how’s your love life going?” Ranmaru questioned. “Last time I heard from you, you were still with Ryoko. Are you guys off? Oh! Can I go for her?!”
“Yeah, yeah go ahead.” Joe tiredly waved his hand. “I think… I think I like Sara now.”
“Oh!” the boy next to him propped himself up, creating an image of the said girl in his mind. “The Chidouin girl, right? Damn, good choice, she’s got some nice-”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Joe muttered into his pillow. Ranmaru was Joe’s best guy friend; he could talk to him about things he wouldn’t be able to say to Sara or Ryoko. Sometimes, Ranmaru would be too extreme, but as long as he kept it in his pants, Joe was fine with it.
“Alright, alright.” Ranmaru laughed, tucking himself in. “I’m still going for Ryoko now anyways. Chidouin is all yours.”
“Good night, Ranmaru.” Joe slurred, blushing.
“Yeah, yeah good night. Don’t let the demons bite~”
That night, Joe had a dreamless sleep. Which was pretty odd, since he would almost always dream of the girl who had plagued his heart. But today, he found himself with nothing.
When he woke up, Ranmaru was gone. His futon was still messily placed next to his and the stove was still on, but he was gone. His nose picked up the scent of burning bacon, and he turned off the stove to prevent a fire.
“Ranmaru?” he questioned to thin air. After neatly folding his bed, Joe led himself outside to scan the perimeter of the small house. Then again, his friend was missing.
“What the hell?” Joe thought to himself. “Maybe he just had a morning excursion to attend to. I’ll thank him when I see him.” He grabbed his belongings and head back to Sonobeno village, where he’d greet everyone good morning. “...But why would he leave the stove on…?”
As soon as the brunette reached the village, his body instantly tensed. Just like Ranmaru, everyone was gone. Wearily checking his surroundings, he stopped dead in his tracks once he reached the path to Ryoko’s house.
“Blood. I smell blood!”
Chucking the basket of charcoal to the side, Joe ran as fast as he could up the hill. Snowflakes flew into his eyes, but he cared not to brush them off his face.
“God damnit, why do you have to live on a hill?” he internally cursed. Brown eyes hesitantly peeked in, but it was only met with a messy environment. “No… Something’s wrong, something’s definitely wrong!”
Before his own stress could break him down, his nose caught onto a certain scent. Sara’s scent. His body moved on its own and he found himself walking around the perimeter of the Chidouin household. The horrid stench of blood invaded his senses.
“Sara?” Joe called out. He tried his best not to sound scared; he did promise that he would protect her and be strong. “Sara, are you with Ryoko? Are you guys oka-”
His breath hitched in his throat and his body grew as cold as the snowy landscape around him. Mouth trembling, he let out an ear-splitting scream at the sight in front of him.
At the doorstep, where he would find himself trying to serenade her, lay Sara, absolutely drenched in blood. Orange hair that was usually kept in a ponytail lay sprawled around her form, covering her face from view.
“Sara!” Joe managed to say, skidding next to her unmoving body. “Sara, what happened? What’s going on?! Can you hear me?!”
As he brushed her orange locks to the side, Joe made the mistake of peeking into the open door. Following the trail of scarlet red that stained Sara and the floor, he emptied his stomach at the sight.
“Ryoko…” Joe mumbled, doubling over. His teary eyes caught onto the sight of black haired girl slumped over in a bloody heap. Her cute black eyes, always shimmering, was lifeless and dull. A never-ending trail of blood gushed out of her mouth. “Mrs.Chidouin…” By the state of the poor woman’s body, he figured that she was about to be decapitated. The large slice on her neck travelled all the way until her belly, and her head hung by a bone. Joe made another mistake by looking around and nearly collapsed when he found Ranmaru’s burnt body forcibly stuffed into the oven. A crumpled love letter to Ryoko lay before the sight.
“Mrs.Chidouin… Ryoko… Ranmaru… Sara …” Joe choked, collapsing to his knees.
As soon as he was done crying his heart out, Joe proceeded to carry their bodies one by one to bury them. However, as soon as he grabbed hold of Sara, he froze once again.
She was warm.
“Pant… Pant… Pant…”
Walking in the domain of the snowy forest, all Joe Tazuna could see was white and scarlet red. All he could hear was his own gasps for air. All he could feel was the deadweight of his best friend on his back.
“How…” he muttered to himself. He figured that it was best not to talk, in order to save his breath, but he was always one to speak his mind. Even alone. “How did this happen?!”
With every trudge and crunch of snow his boots made, he was reminded of the girl helplessly dangling off his back. The blood that trickled from her forehead stained his shoulder and just continued to drip onto his sleeves.
“Sara, don’t die on me. Please don’t die on me!” the boy yelped, tears stinging the corner of his hazelnut eyes. Here he was, desperately searching for a doctor in the middle of nowhere, with his best friend hanging onto life by a loose thread. “I won’t let you die… I promise I’ll save you no matter what-!”
The trail they traveled on led them to a small cliff. Although not as steep as others he knew, he still shivered as he peeked down. As he continued to march through the blizzard, he tried analyzing the situation as best as he could.
“Was it a bear? Was it a bear that couldn’t hibernate?!” Joe spoke, stumbling over a pebble. “Damnit, I can’t breathe!”
“Concentrate, you idiot!” his inner thoughts hissed at him. “Move your legs faster! She’s going to die!”
His swirling thoughts came to a halt when he felt aggressive movement on his back. Along with… growling?
In a split second, the pair was thrown off the cliff and onto the snowy biome below. Joe forced himself to stop screaming and grabbing at nothing. His heart nearly stopped at the fact that if the cliff was any higher, he would be dead.
Snowflakes heavily fell from the sky, landing and stinging every cut on his face from the fall. He thanked whatever God above for the thick snow breaking his fall.
“What.... What just happened?” Joe muttered, brushing white flakes off his wild hair. “I was carrying Sara to see a doctor and-”
“SARA!” he called out, finally gathering his thoughts and senses. Studying the mess of the white trees, he quickly scanned the area to find the girl. He couldn’t find the words for the relief that overcome him when he saw her standing a few feet away.
Despite the dull, throbbing pain in his temple, he sheepishly grinned and ran towards her. Even while he was hurting, if Sara was with him, everything would be alright.
As soon as he reached her, he shifted the entirety of his focus to her; something he couldn’t do for anything else. A beautiful face hid behind loose orange locks and Joe noticed how one of her pink hair ribbons still stood in-tact. Blood stained the beautiful white kimono red in various places; he couldn’t tell whether it was hers or not. The kimono hung so loosely to the point where nearly her breasts and thighs were visible. The boy looked around her form and found the obiage and ribbon lying near a tree.
“Sara! Are you okay?” Joe asked. Confused by the lack of a response, he gently placed his hands on her shoulders. “You don’t have to stand, y’know! Ah, your kimono is hanging pretty loosely… Are you cold?”
“Sara, you know you can get sick like this!” he playfully scolded.
The brunette rubbed at his arm in discomfort. It was unlike Sara to stay so silent.
“Sara… are you alright?”
Brushing her hair aside, his heart skipped a beat at who he saw. Violet eyes he could stare into all day was replaced by a mulberry colour along with thin slits for pupils. He blinked and razor sharp nails scratched at his cheek, drawing a generous amount of blood. Noticing her fangs, Joe backed away as quickly as he could, trying to avoid any more harm.
Before he could even finish the question in mind, he felt a force plummet itself into his body. Intuitively, Joe grabbed at the nearest thing next to him, in this case a log, and held it out in front of him.
“Oh God, what’s going on? What the hell is going on!”
Feelings his back hit the ground, he opened an eye and gazed into angry, dark ones. Sara’s fangs sunk deep into the log he grabbed. If he hadn’t been so quick to obtain it, he was certain that he would be dead. All of a sudden, Sara’s explanation of a demon flashed into his mind.
“S-so you were a demon this whole time?!” he internally questioned her. He struggled immensely and the snarls and growls that came from her mouth pierced his ears. “No… no! You were a human since you were born, I’m sure! I’ve been there for you since day one!”
Gradually losing strength, Joe wearily stared into her eyes again. “What happened to you? What happened to you guys?” he spoke aloud. Sara only continued to growl, scratching at his face in the manner a small bear would. Joe figured this was it. Surely, the Sara Chidouin he grew to adore was gone. He was going to die here, at the hands of the one he loves.
“Sara, I’m sorry!” he cried out, feeling her grow closer to his neck. “I know it must have hurt, you were in so much pain weren’t you?” Tears brimmed at his eyes as he imagined her last words before the disaster.
“Joe…! Please save me-!”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there, I’m sorry you had to suffer while I just slept and relaxed!” he sobbed. At this point, he could feel her hot breath on his face. Her growling only became louder.
“Sara you can kill me,” Joe shouted, shutting his eyes in painful anticipation. “But please know that I love you! I always have! Please, hang in there for me!”
The pain never came. Nor the light at the end of the tunnel. No afterlife with Ryoko and Ranmaru. Rather, amidst the darkness of his own mind, he felt water drop on his face. Reluctantly opening his eyes, he witnessed the crying demon.
The questionable moment was only short-lived as Joe noticed the blur with a blade come after Sara. Hugging her body close to his own, he rolled her around to pin her down as the blade sliced through strands of his hair. The ferocious swing of the blade had been so strong, that it sent the pair rolling until he slammed into a tree. Joe straightened his back and held Sara to his chest as he stared straight ahead to face their attacker. He was met with a slender, expressionless man with dark hair tied back and emotionless eyes. Over what seemed to be a black changshan, the stranger wore a haori of two colours: one side scarlet red, and the other geometrically patterned with green, orange, and yellow.
“He looks like a doll!” Joe shivered, feeling quite intimidated by the katana in the stranger’s hands.
“Why are you protecting it?” the stranger spoke in a low and monotonous way.
“She’s my friend!” Joe defended, propping her up against him. “She’s my best friend!”
The black haired man only narrowed his eyes as he watched Joe attempt to calm her down. It was as if she was trying to run away.
“You call that thing your sister?”
Noticing the dangerous look in the swordsman’s eyes, Joe grabbed Sara once more and doubled over for the sake of her safety. Needless to say, the brunette was at a loss for words when he didn’t feel her underneath him. Snapping his gaze to the swordsman, he realized that he grabbed Sara faster than Joe could protect her.
“Don’t move!” the man hissed, drawing his sword. “My job is to slay demons. I’m sorry, but I am going to have to decapitate your friend.” In his hold, Sara struggled and growled.
“W-wait! But Sara hasn’t killed anyone!” Joe reasoned. If he lost Sara, who knows what kind of depression he’d fall into. “Back at her house, I noticed another scent, an unfamiliar one! It probably belongs to the one who killed my friends! I swear, it wasn’t her… I don’t know why she turned into something like that, but-”
“It’s simple.” the doll of a man cut him off. “Her wounds were exposed to the blood of a demon and subsequently, she became one herself. That’s how they multiply.”
Joe placed a firm foot to the ground, trying to know what he was saying. “Sara would never eat humans!”
“You’ve got to be kidding. Have you not noticed that you would’ve gotten devoured?”
“He saw that?!” Joe screamed to himself. However, now wasn’t the time to beat himself up. He had to focus on getting Sara out of this situation.
“No, you’re wrong! I’m sure she knows who I am! I won’t let her hurt anyone; I’ll turn her back into a human! I swear that I’ll heal her!”
“She can not be healed. Once you become a demon, there’s no way of going back to a human.”
“I-I’ll find a way no matter what! So please! Please don’t kill her!” Joe screamed, eyeing the sword nearing Sara’s neck. “I’m gonna find the one responsible for this, I’ll make everything alright! Please, please! PLEASE STOP!”
“Don’t take anyone else away from me…”
“I’m begging you, please …” he cried on his knees. He bowed before the stranger trembling not out of the cold, but in utter fear. “Please don’t kill my best friend… She’s the only thing I have left… Don’t do it, I’m begging you…”
“Don’t ever give others the chance to murder you!” the swordsman snapped. Joe stopped his crying out of shock and lifted his head. “Stop that pathetic groveling! If it was the least bit effective, your friends wouldn’t be dead! Can a sorry excuse of a man heal his best friend?! Hunt down the enemy?!”
Joe still rested on his knees, staring blankly ahead. Even Sara had fallen quiet.
“Don’t make me laugh! You weak people have no rights or choices; your only fate is to be crushed by the strong! Demons might be able to heal your friend, but don’t think a demon would respect your will or your wishes! That’s reality! What kind of protection is holding someone to your chest and falling over? Why didn’t you fight me off? Why did you expose yourself in such a way?! All of those mistakes led to her capture! I could’ve killed the both of you!”
Heavy tears cascaded down the brunette’s cheeks and his mouth trembled. Silence hung over the air and only Sara’s hisses and growls could he heard. Joe studied the mysterious man and thought that he saw the pity in his blank eyes. He also noticed how the swordsman raised his sword up high.
“No!” Joe shrieked. Within a swift second, the blade was thrust into Sara’s chest, and her scream echoed the forest. “STOP!”
Adrenaline and a newly found rage coursed through his body. Before the sword could impale Sara again, Joe chucked a rock, accurately enough to strike the man’s face, but not enough to hurt Sara’s.
The swordsman studied the boy, dodging every rock thrown at him. The brunette charged towards him with a battle cry, and the man who was meant to receive it only scowled.
“You fool!” he spat, slamming the handle of his sword onto the boy’s back. He watched the boy’s face contort in pain and fall into the snow. He, Kai Satou, had successfully got the distraction out of the way.
“He’s a good kid, really.” Kai thought to himself. “His drive is strong. He knows what he wants and acts upon it. Or at least tries. Only a little more training and he’d be a great-”
Kai doubled over as the demon girl freed herself from his loosened hold and leaped off of his stomach.
“Crap, she’s gonna devour him!”
Kai’s thoughts were proven wrong when the demon girl stood before Joe in a defensive position. “Is it protecting him?”
He heard a snarl and protected himself with his sword as Sara darted towards him. Although she was equipped with no weapon, he could only wonder what kind of damage those knives for nails would do.
“Long ago,” Kai story-told himself as he fought back against the orange haired demon. “Someone once said the same thing , only to be devoured by a demon. When a demon is starving, they’ll eat anyone. They are nutrient rich and will kill anyone and everyone. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count.”
The swordsman shook off the haunting images of people’s limbs torn off, hanging by mere tendons, begging him for mercy. Rather, he stared at the bloody girl, striking at him with the speed of a cheetah.
“This girl has been wounded.” he notes, considering the wound on her forehead, as well as the area where he stabbed. “And she’s expending energy to heal those injuries, just as any demon would. This means she’s severely starved at the moment, without a doubt.”
Ducking down in order to avoid Sara’s dangerous claws, Kai glanced at the unconscious boy laying a few feet away.
“She must’ve wanted to feast on a human right away, even if it was someone she held dear. Yet she protected him instead and even intimidated me.”
Sara used his shoulder to leap onto a tree and attack from above. Hesitantly, Kai sheathed his sword as he concentrated. “I wonder…:
Before Sara could attack, Kai brought a hand down to press against a pressure point in her neck. The demon girl gasped and fell into a heap next to Joe.
“These two just might be different from the others.”
“Hey Joe, sorry for leaving you behind. Take care of Sara for me. For the village, all right?”
In a frenzy, Joe woke up from a slumber he didn’t remember falling into. He swore that Ryoko spoke to him in his unconsciousness. His eyes snapped open to find Sara lying next to him, wrapped up in some sort of cloth. Even in sleep, she was undeniably beautiful. Reluctantly, he raised a hand to touch the new bamboo muzzle that covered her mouth. Tears formed in his auburn eyes as he realized that she was in fact, still alive. He bent down to press his lips against her forehead but shakened when a voice cut off his action.
“Are you awake?”
Joe searched for the source of the voice and was met with the same swordsman from earlier. Although his weapon was sheathed, he still held Sara to his chest.
“Go see a man named Kazumi Mishima who lives at the foot of Mount Sagiri.” the black haired man spoke clearly. “Tell him that Kai Satou sent you. Your friend seems to be okay for now, but don’t expose her to sunlight, alright?”
Before Joe could even question why “Kai” spared Sara, he disappeared in the blink of an eye. Kai didn’t matter to him at the moment, though, All that mattered was that she was alive.
After minutes of shock and silence, Joe carried Sara back to the village. When she woke up, he figured that it was best not to engage in conversation with her. He wondered if she could even talk now.
As he brought her into the Chidouin household, he avoided staring at the bodies of the deceased. Sara didn’t seem to know how to get changed, so Joe had to do it for her, in spite of his embarrassment.
Wrapping her in a black haori, Joe instructed for Sara to stay put when they got outside. To his surprise, she nodded. The girl in the pink kimono blankly watched as he carefully buried the bodies of the deceased next to the house.
As soon as Joe finished his silent prayer, he and Sara walked back into the forest, towards Mount Sagiri.
“Don’t look back.” Joe instructed himself. “Don’t you dare look back. If you do, you’re gonna become weaker than you already are. It’s our fault… Don’t look back, don’t look back don’t-”
His inner thoughts disappeared when he felt a soft hand grasp at his own. Blinking, he looked at his hand, and then to Sara.
“Did she notice that I was lost in my thoughts? Can she understand me?”
“Do you… Do you want to hold hands?”
They held hands in silence, resuming their walk. Joe noticed that his negative thoughts completely disappeared when he held her close.
At that moment, he knew he was gonna be okay. Sara was with him after all.
Everything was going to be alright.